There haven’t been many surprises at the Asian Cup so far, but China winning all three of their Group B matches was not something that many had predicted coming into the competition.
Even head coach Alain Perrin admitted that he hadn’t expected his players to dominate. “Before the tournament I didn’t think we would be qualified after two games,” he told me after their 2-1 victory over North Korea in Canberra on Sunday night.
“I was ready to compete until the last game to qualify for the next round and maybe to finish second or something like that. But after two wins we were very happy and now three wins it’s fantastic for the team and for confidence. But now we know that the second round is very difficult. To play Australia at home is very difficult for us but we have nothing to lose.”
Xu Jiang, of Sohu.com, has spent more than a decade covering Chinese football and agrees that there is now no pressure on Team Dragon as they enter the knockout rounds.
“I don’t know [if they can beat Australia] but the players are not nervous for any match, because they won three matches. I think it’s enough for the players, for the fans, for the media – everybody is satisfied with the team.
“But I think we have a chance. They are very lucky. Always very lucky. But the China team, for the last 10 years we have had very bad luck. But now I think everything will come back.”
The key stroke of good fortune that Xu believes set China on their way was the missed penalty by Naif Hazazi in the opener against Saudi Arabia.
“They had a penalty kick and missed and China had a free-kick and got a goal. I talked about that with the players and they said if the penalty kick was a goal in the first match maybe we’d lose the first match and the second match also we’d lose. But the first match we won. This brought so much experience and confidence.”
Another thing that has instilled self-belief in Perrin’s side is the ongoing success of Guangzhou Evergrande, who are steadily establishing themselves as the giant club in Asia and have seven players in this squad.
“I use the confidence of the players from Guangzhou because they showed that in Asia they can do something good.” Perrin said. “[China] have no players playing in Europe but the spirit is very nice and if we have confidence we can compete with the other teams so that’s what I try to do.”
Xu also cited the importance of Chinese clubs’ participation in the Asian Champions League on the national team’s improvement.
“I think the most important reason is the Chinese clubs. Every year they play against the teams from other Asian leagues. Sun Ke from Jiangsu [Sainty], he’s played in the ACL, also Yu Hai [of Guizhou Renhe]. Many players in this team have experience from the Asian league. They are young but they have experience of facing strong teams.”
Another strong team lies in wait in Thursday’s quarter-final as China travel to Brisbane to take on the hosts, and while the Socceroos may have taken a knock to their own confidence after losing 1-0 to South Korea in their last group game, Perrin still feels Ange Postecoglou’s side are expected to emerge victorious.
“They lost against South Korea, another favourite of the competition. Clearly Australia are the favourites for next game but we have to contest and to compete during the game and to give our best. To enjoy the game.”
China may be happy with their lot, but Australia have the expectations of a nation on their shoulders. The Chinese adventure may not be coming to an end just yet.